U.S. Jewish organizations have joined Polish government and Jewish community leaders in denouncing the volatile language in a property lawsuit that accuses Poland of a pattern of ethnic cleansing of Jews after World War II. One Polish newspaper editor attacked the lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court as "a priceless gift for anti-Semites in Poland." The round of criticism comes as Polish legislators began summer vacation after drafting landmark legislation to return private property seized from Polish citizens by the Nazis or the Communists more than 55 years ago. The Polish parliament recessed without taking action on the proposed legislation, whose details remain unclear but could cost tens of billions of dollars.
But Polish representatives are assailing both the substance and language of two American class-action lawsuits accusing the Polish government and treasury of illegally seizing Jewish property after World War II. Regarding the merits of the case, lawyers for the Polish government claimed the two federal lawsuits, in Brooklyn and Chicago, are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. "According to international law, sovereign states cannot be sued by their citizens in U.S. courts," said Witold Danilowicz, attorney from U.S. law firm White & Case, which is representing Poland in the Chicago case.
Legal experts, however, told The Jewish Week there are several exceptions to the international law, regarding cases in which government officials are accused of terrorism or torture. Danilowicz also argued that suits related to real estate should be tried in the country where the property is located.
The Polish government, along with two leading domestic insurers, state-owned PZU and Warta, is being been sued by four Holocaust survivors in a Chicago court. But the Brooklyn suit, filed June 18 on behalf of 11 Jews, has sparked furor in Poland because it accuses individual Poles and the Polish government of using violence, threats, torture and intimidation to prevent returning Jews from reclaiming their property and businesses after the war. Other surviving Jews, fearing anti-Semitic violence in their homeland, never returned. Their property, and that of victims who died, was seized, according to the lawsuit, filed by New York attorneys Mel Urbach and Edward Klein. "Claims included in the lawsuit … are unfounded … and slanderous," declared Polish government spokesman Krzysztof Luft. "Making Poland responsible in the same way as Nazi Germany is unprecedented slander."
Polish Jews also expressed outrage. Adam Michnik, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a major Warsaw newspaper, published the entire lawsuit accompanied by a scathing editorial calling the charges "untruthful and vile," and "a blatant pack of lies."
"Some people have decided to use the drama of the Holocaust as an opportunity to play for huge money in court," wrote Michnik, who is Jewish. "The suit is a priceless gift for anti-Semites in Poland and Jews who vehemently hate Poland. Both want a Polish Jewish war." Polish Jewish community leader Konstanty Gebert said that Michnik’s editorial "certainly expressed the universal feeling here regarding the suit. The institutional Jewish community has sharply distanced itself … from the suit," Gebert said in an e-mail Tuesday. "The basic historical claim it makes, that successive post-war Polish governments had implemented Judenrein policy is not only preposterous, it is also outrageous. Morally, it is no better than claims about a Jewish conspiracy against Poland made by Polish anti-Semites." In America, several Jewish organizations provided varied reactions to the suit.
The American Jewish Committee, in a statement released only in Poland last week, used several paragraphs to criticize Poland’s long delay of passing a fair restitution bill, but called the lawsuit "unquestionably bad history." "It is a gross distortion of fact to claim, as the lawsuit does, that there was in place an organized Polish government effort ‘to wipe out all traces of the Jewish race,’" it said. But the AJCommittee also wrote that Poland has deferred confronting the problem of private property restitution for a decade, and lamented that "it appears possible, if not likely, that such legislation will unfairly discriminate between claimants," referring to drafts of the bill that would exclude American Jews from making claims. Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, called for Urbach to amend the lawsuit to eliminate the controversial charges.
"It skews history and one cannot tell the difference between what some [Polish] collaborators did and what the Nazis did," Foxman said. "I think to charge the Poles and compare them with Nazis is offensive, unacceptable and hurtful," he said, while also defending the right of Jews to sue in American court Urbach told The Jewish Week Tuesday that "the language will be toned down" because he is in the process of amending the Brooklyn complaint to include non-Jewish Polish property owners. But Urbach defended the language of the original complaint saying it represented the bad memories of the Jewish survivors.